The effects of noise on hearing vary among people. Some people's ears are more sensitive to loud sounds, especially at certain frequencies. (Frequency means how low or high a tone is.) But any sound that's loud enough and lasts long enough can damage hearing and lead to hearing loss.
A sound's loudness is measured in decibels (dB). Normal conversation is about 60 dB. A lawn mower is about 90 dB. And a loud rock concert is about 120 dB. In general, sounds above 85 dB are harmful. But this depends on how long and how often you are exposed to the sound. It also depends on whether you wear hearing protection, such as earplugs or earmuffs.
Here are examples of decibel levels of a number of sounds.
Average decibels (dB)
Leaves rustling, soft music, whisper
Average home noise
Normal conversation, background music
Office noise, inside car at 60 mph
Vacuum cleaner, average radio
Heavy traffic, window air conditioner, noisy restaurant, power lawn mower
80–89 (Sounds above 85 dB are harmful.)
Subway, shouted conversation
Chainsaw, leaf blower, snowmobile
Sports crowd, rock concert, loud symphony
Stock car races
Gun shot, siren at 30 metres (100 feet)
As sound gets louder, the amount of time you can listen to it before damage occurs decreases. Hearing protectors reduce the loudness of sound reaching the ears. They allow you to listen to louder sounds for a longer time.
How to know when noise levels may be harmful
An easy way to be more aware of possibly harmful noise is to pay attention to warning signs that a sound might be damaging to your hearing. A sound may be harmful if:
You have trouble talking or hearing others talk over the sound.
The sound makes your ears hurt.
Your ears are ringing after hearing the sound.
Other sounds seem muffled after you leave an area where there is loud sound.
Medical Review:William H. Blahd Jr. MD, FACEP - Emergency Medicine & Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine & Charles M. Myer III MD - Otolaryngology
Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.